Making the cover of Time
magazine used to be one of the great hallmarks of success for an individual or a company, and it’s still no mean feat. Though, most companies would not be thrilled at being described, like Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG) is this week in its Time
cover story, as “one of the most successful, ubiquitous and increasingly strange
companies on the planet.”
Then again, Google corporate types may not mind the description, and co-founder and CEO Larry Page may be quite pleased.
It’s not just the wearable computer called Google Glass that Time
finds strange, or the “smart balloons” that beam Internet signals to remote locations, or the driverless cars steering themselves down the highways of California, Florida, and Nevada.
declares, Google is trying to solve death itself.
Well, yes, apparently it is. But it’s not trying to solve death by, say, the end of the current fiscal quarter, or even in the next few quarters.
In a rare interview with Time
, Google's Page suggested that its investment in a company called Calico, announced this week, may not result in any progress for 10 or 20 years. He calls this and Google projects like it, the "moon shots" -- that is, big ideas that can change the world, but not tomorrow.
And that is what is so very strange about Google. Public companies just don’t think 10 or 20 years in the future these days. Or, if they do, they don’t talk about it out loud, because it makes shareholders nervous.
So, before getting into how Google is going to help us all live forever, or at least for much longer, take a look at a couple of projects the company is working on that could pay off a lot sooner:
Google is working to replace the “tracking cookie,” that familiar but odious component of the Web experience, with something less objectionable on privacy grounds, without breaking the economic system that supports the Internet.
It has enhanced its search results by adding “in-depth articles” to its results, in order to flesh out timely matches with greater context.
Google is considering ways to replace the third-party or tracking cookie as the basic piece of information that marketers use to target individuals based on their Web-browsing activity.
Google’s attempt to lead on this issue, first reported by USAToday.com
, will be controversial in itself.
It isn’t going to be easy to replace a system that underpins the now-$120 billion digital advertising business, but it could be argued that it has got to be done, and soon.
For one thing, marketers are getting better at interpreting and responding to the information they have gathered on users’ interests and habits. But the more effective they get, the creepier they are. Advertisers do not aim to creep out their most-likely potential customers, so the industry itself is at least considering alternatives to the cookie.
Other industry players have responded to consumers’ concerns. The latest version of Microsoft's
(NASDAQ:MSFT) Internet Explorer browser has a default setting of “Do Not Track,” and Apple
(NASDAQ:AAPL) does not permit third-party cookies in its Safari browser.
Worst of all, mobile apps do not support third-party cookies. So, their days are numbered.
Among the alternatives Google reportedly is considering is an anonymous identifier, or AdID, a system already in use by Apple.
According to USAToday.com, Google will start “reaching out” to industry, consumer, and government groups to get their reaction in the coming weeks and months.
Early indications are that the advertising industry will be wary of a change that could make Google the keeper of knowledge that is now in their own hands. In the words of AdAge
, this system could take Google “from being the biggest card player at the table to owning the casino.”
Google is, after all, supposed to be a search engine company, so it’s a relief to learn that it's still working on that.
It’s also good to get an explanation for those “in-depth articles” links that have begun popping up in some search results.
It seems that Google conducted a study late last year that concluded that about 10% of the queries conducted on its search engine were not satisfactory. That is, the user required more information, different information, or at least more context, than its algorithm had turned up.
The result is “in-depth articles,” a selection of related long-form articles that might be months or even years old, but that includes the context that is otherwise missing.
In an article co-authored
by data scientist Peter J. Meyers, Forbes.com’s Denis Pinsky explains the new section, well, in-depth.
But about that cure for death…
The new company, called Calico and funded in part by Google, is dedicated to tackling the issues of aging-related disease, with the goal of extending the human life span.
In a blog post announcing the company
, Page says he believes the company can improve millions of lives by bringing what he calls “moon shot thinking” to health care and biotechnology.
The company will be led by Arthur D. Levinson, a biochemist by training who is the chairman and former CEO of Genentech as well as the chairman of Apple. He also was on Google’s board until 2009, when he resigned to resolve a regulatory probe into the overlapping directors at Google and Apple.
Even Wired.com thinks Calico
is, for Google, “an odd move.” What happened, it asks, to the promise Page made just two years ago to put more focus in core ventures?
cover story might have an interesting answer to that question. Medicine is becoming an information science, it notes, as vast amounts of data are increasingly used to customize treatment. And Google, the article notes, “is very, very good with large data sets.”
But if that’s not persuasive, consider this: Google has about $54 billion in cash. If it can use a chunk of that to extend all of our lives, or just to cure Larry Page’s midlife crisis (he’s 40), what could it hurt?
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